When Paul Walker died in the fiery crash of his Porsche Carrera GT on 11/30/2013 in Valencia, California, it was an eerie reminder of James Dean’s death in a Porsche 550 Spyder on 09/30/1955 just outside Cholame, California. (See Figure #1) Here was another successful star of youth oriented movies dying relatively young (40) in a car crash. Both Walker and Dean were car enthusiasts, both were with companions when they died—Dean’s as passenger (he lived), Walker’s as driver (he died)—both raced, both owned exotic Porsches, both died in exotic Porsches. It is a little early to tell if the impact of Walker’s death will rival Dean’s. Will there be a movie November 30, 2013 to dramatize the impact of his death as September 30, 1955 did with Dean’s?
Probably not, but some signs are already there that his death is special. You can see it in the unauthorized ceremonies that have already taken place at the crash site: the piles of flowers, the small planes trailing banners over the site with messages like “R.I.P. God be with Fast and Furious star Paul Walker.”
And then there all the heartfelt tributes to “one of their own” posted at the scene as well as the ritual procession of mourners past the site, some in cars that had already been modified to look like the star cars of the Fast and Furious franchise that has grossed over $2billion. There are less respectful responses to his death like the collecting of relics at the crash site: an eighteen-year-old was arrested shortly after posting a picture of the roof panel he took from the scene on Instagram.
Walker’s crash has produced probably the key element in transforming his death into a myth—Walker and Roger Rodas, who was driving the Porsche, faked their deaths. That claim was on the Internet within days of Walker’s crash. After Dean’s death there were many such stories. I remember one in particular: his growing tired of Hollywood and faking his death so he could race in peace in Canada. Auto deaths of famous people seem to generate an inordinate number of conspiracy theories and hoaxes.
Walker is just the latest in a long list of famous people who lost their lives in car wrecks: royalty like Princess Diana and Grace Kelly, Hollywood royalty like Jane Mansfield and Dean, as well as artists and writers like Jackson Pollack, Albert Camus, Nathanael West and W.G. Sebald. The list of musicians killed in crashes is long and cuts across genres. It includes Marc Bolan, Eddie Cochran, Harry Chapin, Clifford Brown, and Lisa Lopes. It doesn’t include rappers shot in their cars, like Kenny Clutch (Maserati), Future (Maybach), OG Double D (Maybach), Notorious B.I.G. (Suburban), and the most famous Tupac Shakur (BMW 750).
There is something about car crashes that demands our attention. It partly has to do with the fact that they are dramatic, sad, shocking and unprepared for. But there is something else. Plane crashes are noteworthy no matter who dies in them, because they are unusual. Car accidents are commonplace, ever present. Every time we take to the highway, we risk an accident. We know when we see one, we feel it is less likely we will have one. We have all experienced that guilty sense of satisfaction in finally seeing the twisted metal of crashed cars after a long wait in a rubbernecking line and our disappointment, as if he have robbed of something, if the accident scene has been cleared when we get there. We don’t want to see bodies, but the wrecked cars, yes. There is more than crude, heartless voyeurism at work here.